Betty and I have never watched television more than a couple of times a year, never had cable, or more than two or three stations at the end of our antenna. However, now, suddenly, we have a dish, and Turner Classics has seduced us more than once. Last night, West Side Story happened to be on. What a coincidence. Even more of a (bitter) coincidence is the fact that someone was shot to death in central Kingston while we were watching – probably a gang killing, although I am not sure. There are gang problems and a growing crime rate here.
Certainly, there are a lot of lovely things about West Side Story, which film's New Haven opening I happened to sing for (as part of the Yale Russian Chorus--don't ask for the logic here) so many years ago. The dancing is terrific and the music is lovely, if not as great as Shakespeare's music. In a sense. the characters are closer to us – as we are Americans and know about racial (and other) prejudice in this country. In a sense, we can relate to West Side Story's characters because we know people very much like them – like the dead young man about fifteen blocks away from my desk here.
My sister Juliet, who is in her last year of teaching middle-school English at The Park School in Brookline/Boston, had some initial thoughts on Romeo and Juliet – based on her years of teaching it to eighth graders, which I include below.
From JULIET SCHOEN-RENÉ BAKER:
Romeo and Juliet is certainly a play of the humours and of the heavens— typed imagery and ideology of this period.
Think about the names:
- Romeo - Romance;
- Juliet - jewel;
- Paris - thieving lover, pretty boy;
- Benvolio - Well-wisher;
- Montague - mountain, absolute ruler;
- Mercutio - Mercury, merchandise, quick-silver;
- Laurence - bay tree, gardening (?); crafty person (Scots 1567);
- Capulet - head;
- Tybalt - tyrant (?), gallows.
Shakespeare is so playful here and inquisitive — fooling around with names, humours, flat characters, genre.
Mercutio: is a movie star whose part was written only in order to get him to take the job; he's a screwed up thermometer: hot cold, cool, warm. He hates women— finds them disgusting; is inexperienced in love (I'll to my trundle bed:), yet dying to talk dirty; does it matter whether or not he lusts after Romeo?
Work with basic terms to chronologize the play: exposition; rising action; climax; falling action and denouement; walking away. The climax is more of a turning point: when Tybalt kills Mercutio; the deaths are simply a very sad end.
Tragedy: I like your point, Ernst. Could we call this a social tragedy, chock-full of IRONY? a precursor of the great 19th century playwrights— Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg? But with Shakespeare there is absolutely nor catharsis, nor is there any epiphany; but a great deal of social commentary.
Shakespeare is very concerned here about class and corruptibility; less concerned about character. In fact, they're all flat, except for Juliet. Capulet attempts to round out, but there he is at the end going into a statue competition with Montague.
The sex stuff focuses on class, entertaining the audience, and setting off the purity and innocence of Romeo and Juliet's high passion.
After having taught the play at least 25 times (it was the first thing I ever taught) I am as moved as ever by the brilliant, luminous language. I am in the enviable position of teaching Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Othello simultaneously, along with coaching others who are teaching Midsummer Night's Dream. My heart belongs to Macbeth. Every winter I cry during the long Malcolm/Macduff scene. Somehow, I teach the children that they also should cry then. I even call that scene the climax. Oh! But that's a different play.